It was surprising to find – just before the concert – an RFH platform with eight double bass players, furiously practising some unfamiliar, swift, taxingly angular music. It was soon clear why, for it was their opening passage for the fast and furious Hans Abrahamsen work Three Pieces for Orchestra, in the UK première of a Berlin Philharmonic commission. Above those scurrying strings the sound was dominated by a phalanx of tuned percussion for five players, and lively rhythmic motifs shared around the orchestral sections. This was enjoyably angry music, as if a vast orchestral wasp had got into the Festival Hall. By contrast the middle piece was slow and ethereal, coloured by piccolos and high strings, a sort of 21st-century “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. The third piece was slow also, but heavier in sound with low string textures around a static viola line and with an intriguing tick-tock of percussion. The piece did not end as much as evaporate. The entire work was dense with musical incident but less than ten minutes long – it is part of the Philharmonic’s Tapas project initiated by Rattle, who conducted with the relish required for very small items full of flavour.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

There was no interval, just a short pause for some changes of orchestral personnel, and the removal of the conductor’s music stand, Sir Simon needing no score for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony even in its four-movement version with completed finale. Where some major conductors persist with the three-movement torso, Rattle has championed the completion. After all, he came to international attention when very young in part through a recording of another pioneering completion of a symphonic torso, Mahler’s Tenth. The attraction he said was to that rare thing, a great symphony “without a performing tradition”. That is true now of Bruckner Nine, if not quite to the same degree. Here is late Bruckner, one quarter of which is unknown to the Furtwängler-to-Wand Berlin tradition.

Rattle is his own man in Bruckner as in everything else. It was clear from the opening that this interpretation would not conform to the ponderous, every-bar-laden-with-portents manner. Things were kept moving, and the characteristic pauses were quite short. These Luftpausen are said to reflect the organist’s habit of allowing for the reverberation period of a big church, in which case they are hardly needed in the dry RFH. But they are also structural signposts, preparing a change of material and mood, and I rather missed the sense of an orchestra taking a collective deep breath, which can add to the mystery – the marking after all is Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious). But from the first fff statement of the main theme with its octave drop, there was power in abundance, with a wall-of-sound effect in the brass entries which still allowed for good balance with other sections, so that dense textures never became clotted. Rattle balanced the lyrical sections well also, allowing detail from within the superb string band to be heard. The final blaze was terrific, the trumpets searing in their summons from the beyond.

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

The Scherzo stamped swiftly and savagely, the woodwind flecks in the major key trio delightfully etched in. But it was the monumental Adagio that was most compelling, as it often is, since the composer called it his “farewell to life” and it is still often the last movement that is played in a performance. The opening passages were keening in lyrical intensity and spoke of sacred things, as the orchestral sound bloomed. The saturated string tone was still there when the piece required it and the conductor encouraged them to dig deep. The heaven-storming pinnacle of the movement was terrifying, the vision of a dying man – less orchestral climax than existential crisis.

The composer died before he could complete the finale, but there are now several reconstructions from the abundant surviving materials. Rattle has promoted that of Samale, Phillips, Mazzuca and Cohrs (or “SPMC”). Musicological issues aside, there is more Bruckner here, as Rattle points out, than there is Mozart in the Requiem. More importantly, this sounds like Bruckner, and never sounds as if written by committee. If it is still not quite satisfying enough, then it joins the ranks of all Bruckner symphonies bar Five and Eight in that the finale does not quite match the weight of the first movement (don’t write in…). But played like this, one thing is clear. The completed symphony, dedicated “To beloved God”, is now to be preferred to the three-movement version. What Bruckner would have made of it all God alone knows.

****1